Last Wednesday, I woke up to the realisation that something odd had happened. I hadn't received any mail for at least a week. Normally, like most people, I imagine, I receive a quota of generally junk mail, but also bank statements, pensions information, HMRC updates, etc. Then came the news that postal workers were to be on strike for 48 hours. So what had they been doing the previous week? I hadn't seen any of our familiar postmen with their sacks and red fleeces around for a while. I contemplated posting the mystery on Facebook, but after skimming through a copy of Saturday's i
weekend, I discovered what seems to be the answer.
In case anyone else is mystified, it appears that Royal Mail has now redefined itself, not as a public service, but as a parcels service, because it is more lucrative when fewer people are sending letters. A directive has gone out to staff to prioritise parcels over letters. When there's a glut of mail and more strikes in the offing, it's easier to store letters than bulky parcels. In evidence, there was a photograph of piles of mail shoring up the exterior of a sorting office in the Midlands. The, presumably unintended, consequence of this is that people are not receiving notification of hospital appointments, renewed bank cards, bills or other vital communications among those I indicated above, along with the usual junk mail and seasonal greetings cards. Prioritisation of parcels effectively seems to mean not delivering letters. Where is Scout Mail these days when you might actually need it?
An old schoolfriend of mine who came to Edinburgh in the late 1950s from Poland finally published a powerful memoir of her Jewish family's experiences during the Holocaust there and how what happened to her parents affected their subsequent lives. Both had escaped death by a hair's breadth, her father on the Death March from Auschwitz, her mother at a railway station about to be sent to the death camp of Beljec, when a woman working in the cafeteria took advantage of some confusion in a crowd on the platform when a second train arrived to put a cross round her neck and told her to sit down inside until the confusion passed.
The book is called Never Tell Anyone You're Jewish
. Her account is deeply researched and harrowing. She and I were in different classes at school and therefore did not become friends until much later, but, having read The Diary of Anne Frank
, I was always intrigued by her and by the fact that I never saw her smile. Reading her book explains why.
I was therefore interested in David Baddiel's documentary, Jews Don't Count,
shown on Channel 4 last week. I was somewhat puzzled by his wish to have Jews considered as marginalised minorities, like members of the Afro-Caribbean or Muslim communities, or disabled or gender fluid groups. Why would you wish to be when many Jews have done so well in the UK in the years since the Holocaust? I don't think of them as bloated plutocrats, more as musicians, academic experts in a whole range of fields, historians, journalists, broadcasters, entertainers, writers and the like. Progressive thinkers and fearless speakers.
I know little about the more orthodox Jewish communities and what little I have come across suggests more issues within
those communities than concerns from outside. While they remain a distinctive group with their characteristic traditions, which even the less religious among them seem happy to acknowledge, they look well integrated into mainstream British life. I therefore found it alarming when Baddiel spoke of fear among the Jewish community even yet, with children in Jewish schools being put through regular security drills in case of attack.
This business of 'othering' that raised its head within the confines of Buckingham Palace last week also worries me. Evidently Lady Susan Hussey's intense inquiry as to Ngozi Fulani's ethnic origins was, from what I read in a newspaper transcript, clearly inept and inappropriate. I would like to think malice played no part in it, but if the transcript is accurate it seemed unaccountably persistent. However, to reference the Windrush generation and call it 'abuse', as if Fulani were being lined up for potential deportation, seems a bit strong. I suspect she was wrongfooted by the situation and felt she had not been accorded the importance she expected, but you do wonder whether she could have defused the tension somehow without magnifying her sense of outrage nationwide.
At times I feel pretty muddled about this more generally. Even if one is a British citizen, if one looks and/or dresses according to a different cultural norm, it seems not unreasonable for people to inquire where you or your antecedents have come from. I think it's interesting to find out people's origins and how they find living in our culture, whether they were born here or not. I've done this myself sometimes quite innocently out of pure curiosity.
An optician with Chinese looks but a very un-Chinese name seemed perfectly happy to tell me he came from Indonesia and the various ethnic mixes there. In contrast, a Muslim, one of three, who turned up like the Magi one Christmas Eve to see my husband, said he came from Newton Stewart. That wasn't the answer I was expecting, but I let it rest, which was probably wise. I expect the late Queen would have handled the unfortunate encounter with more tact.
Many of us are guilty of 'othering' every so often. We are, when you get down to it, pretty tribal. We like folks like ourselves. We feel comfortable there. I remember being introduced to a distant relative of a close friend at a family gathering in Gloucestershire. When he heard I came from Edinburgh, his response was: 'Oh, I used to have a Scottish girlfriend. She invited me to stay with her family one Christmas. I couldn't understand a word anyone said'. The rudeness blindsided me. What I should have done was say: 'I'm sorry to hear that, but I hope you can understand what I'm saying,' and then turned away. L'esprit de l'escalier
gets you every time.
Anyway, after all that, this Notebook article is my swan song. I told Islay that I would like to stand down now and give someone else an opportunity. I'm grateful to the late Kenneth Roy for accepting the first piece I submitted to the Review
, without which I might never have tried again, and later to Islay for offering me a Notebook slot. It was a challenge, however, especially when immobilised during lockdown, to come up with topics I hoped might be of interest. I researched them as well as I could, being conscious of not being 'an expert' among all those heavyweight retired male academics.
I'm not planning to stop writing, but want more time to complete a family memoir before my own memory fails. And I hope to follow up my 2019 book of short stories with more fictions in due course.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh